By Julie Leigh Domeny
Since 1928, thousands of thrill seekers have converged upon Calaveras County to see whose frog will jump the farthest. As part of the folk culture generated by Mark Twain, frog jumping was made famous in commemoration of a short story he wrote, ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County". Every spring, in Angels Camp, Calaveras County up to 5,000 contestants enter their frogs in the competition.
The contest has strict rules regulating the frogs' welfare, including limiting the daily number of jumps and mandating the playing of calming music in frog enclosures. Participants entering the longest-jumping frog win a cash prize, or a $5,000 bonus if their frog were to break the 1986 record of 21 feet, 5¾ inches, set by ‘Rosie the Ribeter’. The 2018 Frog Jump winner was the frog, Reckless, with a 19' 4 ½ score.
Mark Twain wrote ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" in 1865. It was his first great success as a writer. In the story, the narrator is sent by a friend to interview Simon Wheeler, who might know the location of an old acquaintance named Leonidas W. Smiley. Finding Simon at an old mining camp, the narrator asks him if he knows anything about Leonidas; Simon appears not to, and instead tells a story about Jim Smiley, a man who had visited the camp years earlier.
The narrator retells the story Simon heard at the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp, California, about the gambler. The narrator describes him: "If he even seen a straddle bug start to go anywheres, he would bet you how long it would take him to get to wherever he going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road."
Apparently, Jim loves to gamble and will offer to bet on anything and everything, from horse races to dogfights, to the health of the local parson's wife. He catches a frog, who he names Dan'l Webster, and spends three months training it to jump. When a stranger visits the camp, Jim shows off Dan'l and offers to bet $40 that it can out-jump any other frog in Calaveras County. The stranger, unimpressed, says that he would take the bet if he had a frog, so Jim goes out to catch one, leaving him alone with Dan'l. While Jim is away, the stranger pours lead shot down Dan'l's throat. Once Jim returns, he and the stranger set the frogs down and let them loose. The stranger's frog jumps away while Dan'l does not budge, and the surprised and disgusted Jim pays the $40 wager. After the stranger has departed, Jim notices Dan'l's sluggishness and picks the frog up, finding it to be much heavier than he remembers. When Dan'l belches out a double handful of lead shot, Jim realizes that he has been cheated and chases after the stranger, but never catches him.
At this point in the story, Simon excuses himself to go outside for a moment. The narrator realizes that Jim has no connection to Leonidas and gets up to leave, only to have Simon stop him at the door, offering to tell him about a one-eyed, stubby-tailed cow that Jim had owned. Rather than stay to hear another pointless story, the narrator excuses himself and leaves.
Twain, Mark (1867). The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. New York: C. H. Webb. Republished by Oxford University Press (1997), ISBN 978-0-19-511400-3.
Best doc – Thunderbird Film Festival
Best doc - Myrtle Beach Film Festival
Best Doc – Ole Muddy Film Festival
Official Selection – Jackson Hole Film Festival; New Hampshire Film Expo
Saying it out loud, or even thinking it quietly, the name Lodestar conjures up powerful memories and reflections. And meaning.